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Chile - 2009 General Election

Chile's presidential and congressional elections took place 13 December 2009. Voters also elected 18 of the 38 senators and all members of the Chamber of Deputies in elections generally considered free and fair. For the first time in 20 years, the Chile's center-right coalition, Alianza, won more seats in Congress than did the governing center-left coalition, Concertacion. Despite this symbolic loss, the overall balance in Congress did not change dramatically. The Concertacion regained its majority in the Senate. Other notable changes included more than doubling the number of women senators, the election of Communist Party candidates for the first time in nearly 40 years, and the defeat of several old-time political heavyweights by younger (but well-connected) challengers.

The biggest surprise in this election was not the overall balance of power in Congress but rather the electorate's enthusiasm for new faces over incumbents. Out of 120 seats, voters elected 45 new parliamentarians to the Chamber of Deputies, many of whom defeated very experienced and well-known politicians. Emblematic politicians who were defeated by younger, less experienced challengers include two-time conservative presidential candidate Joaquin Lavin, Chamber of Deputies President Rodrigo Alvarez, and three-term progressive Senator Jaime Gazmuri. On the other hand, many in Chile have been calling for a political renewal that would expand political participation to include a younger generation and more average citizens as opposed to the political elite.

President Bachelet, Chile's immensely popular leader, was constitutionally precluded from seeking immediate re-election. The electoral system is based on the 1980 Constitution and requires a candidate to receive 50 percent of the votes plus one to win in the first round of voting. There were four candidates vying to succeed her, and three had a chance of making it to the second round.

  1. Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle: a Christian Democrat and the Concertacion candidate, Frei was attempting to regain the presidency that he held from 1994-2000 and that his legendary father, Eduardo Frei Montalva, held from 1964-1970. Smart, dependable, honest, and dull, Frei represented both stability and stagnant politics.
  2. Sebastian Pinera: a Harvard-educated billionaire and former Senator, Pinera was the Alianza candidate from the RN party. This was Pinera's second serious run for the presidency. He hoped to win as the agent of responsible change - someone who will invigorate the country without altering popular social welfare programs.
  3. Marco Enriquez-Ominami: a 36 year-old filmmaker and former member of the Socialist party, Enriquez-Ominami is an upstart, independent candidate. His surprisingly successful campaign was attributed more to his colorful background and the public's dissatisfaction with the political establishment than any substantive accomplishments or vision.
  4. Jorge Arrate: also a former member of the Socialist party, he ws the far-left candidate for the Juntos Podemos (Together We Can) coalition composed of the Humanist/Communist parties. Although he is a well-respected statesman who served as minister three times, he was not expected to advance to the second round.

This was the fifth time Chileans had gone to the polls to elect a president since the 1988 plebiscite ended the Pinochet dictatorship. The previous four elections produced victories for the Concertacion, a center-left coalition of four political parties (Socialist Party - PS, the Party for Democracy - PPD, the Radical Social Democrat Party - PRSD, Christian Democrats - DC). The Alianza, a conservative coalition composed of the Revolucion Nacional (RN) and Independent Democratic Union (UDI) parties, sought its first chance to govern since the return to democracy in 1990.

Differences in policies between the leading presidential candidates were minimal, although Pinera emphasizes the role of the private sector and Frei emphasizes that the government could do more and do it better. The real theme of the presidential election is continuity (building on good policies of prior Concertacion governments) versus change (arguing for a new governing coalition after 20 years of Concertacion rule) and how the candidates can sell themselves to voters looking at both factors. The other main themes center around the campaign process: the surprisingly strong unity of the right behind Pinera (in the last presidential election the right has run competing candidates in the first round), the weak Frei campaign that has failed to take advantage of President Bachelet's extremely high popularity, and the unexpected surge of Enriquez-Ominami.

In the first round of presidential elections, none of the four presidential candidates won more than 50% of the vote. As a result, the top two vote-getters -- center-left Concertacion coalition's Eduardo Frei and center-right Alianza coalition's Sebastian Pinera -- competed in a run-off election on January 17, 2010, which Pinera won. This was Chile's fifth presidential election since the end of the Pinochet era. All five have been judged free and fair. The President is constitutionally barred from serving consecutive terms. Piñera was previously a highly successful businessman, owing a TV station, a football team, and about 25% of Chile’s national airline, LAN.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2020 18:53:02 ZULU